Instead of casseroles and hugs we are given silence and isolation. When we announce that our loved one has died by suicide to our friends, co-workers and neighbors, we are met with an awkward silence. It lands like a thud as we are left to be responsible for other people’s discomfort with the word suicide.
Many people don’t understand that those of us left behind after a suicide death want the same kind of supportive gestures that other people need when grieving. We want people to bring us food, offer to do errands and listen to us tell stories about our loved ones. No words are needed, just kindness.
Therapists who work with suicide survivors will benefit from understanding how suicide grief is different than other spectrums of bereavement. Here are 3 examples of how suicide grief is distinctive:
- Shame and stigma attached to suicide death is something I cannot dodge despite my best efforts. Even though I don’t feel ashamed of my loved ones who died by suicide, others remind me of the reasons to embrace shame. They remind me by avoiding the topic or by changing the subject. They remind me of my family member’s “bad choice” to die due to their “weak character.” They remind me by making derogatory comments about public figures who died by suicide.
- Suicide is often seen as a selfish act, which leaves survivors to believe that we weren’t important enough to keep them alive. We internalize the message that if we told them we loved them more often, if we tried harder to help them, if we only would’ve (fill in the blank), then our loved one would be alive. Suicide is not a selfish choice or a punitive act. It is about someone enduring unbearable pain resulting in an inability to cognitively think of other options. Suicide is about pain relief, it is not about dying. This myth reinforces our despair through the words and actions of others, and through media clichés.
- Why?There are endless questions after a suicide death that we are left to answer ourselves. If we only knew the “Why?” of their death, it would relieve us of the confusing guilt and conflicting sadness and anger. We become private detectives searching for clues, reviewing every detail leading up to their deaths for a hint that will provide us with a rational reason for an irrational action. We become authors of their deaths, creating meaning out of our feelings, mix in whatever facts we discover, and it becomes our new reality.
Therapists need to help us understand that the answers to the “Why?” of suicide may be elusive forever, and that’s ok. We need encouragement to let go of the “Why?” and find helpful and hopeful ways to move forward with the grieving process.
By acknowledging and naming the distinct nature of this loss and unique relationship with grief, therapists can help relieve shame and guilt. One or more family members may feel certain that they could have prevented the death and “failed” to do so. We need specific validation that it wasn’t our fault. We need to be told that suicide death is not a reflection of how much we were loved or how much we loved them. We need to be educated how the brain pathways become disabled and limit cognitive reasoning.
We need to know the actions of our loved one does not equal “committing” a crime of selfishness that convicts us to a lifetime full of shame.
Terminology is an important factor when working with a suicide survivor. The often used phrase “committed suicide” is offensive in that it implies a crime occurred. It reinforces a negative and dishonorable life. By using the phrase “died by suicide” instead, you will help dispel some of the stigma and disgrace embedded in a suicide death.
In the United States, nearly 40,000 people die by suicide every year, that’s one person every 13 minutes. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death, homicide is 16th. An average of five people are profoundly affected by each suicide death, which means 200,000 new people a year in this country will be faced with shame, guilt, isolation and confusion, resulting in disruption in daily functioning.
We can help relieve survivors of the perceived obligation to educate anyone who asks about conditions that lead to suicide. With strangers who asked my mother how her husband died, she saved them both from the predictable shock of explaining suicide, and simply said that her husband had a terminal illness. Through increased awareness and education, we psychotherapists can have a positive impact with our clients and the community.
We can help survivors feel comfortable with asking for a casserole and a supportive ear to listen to stories about the life and death of their loved one who died by suicide.
For information and resources geared for both clinical professionals as well as those who have lost family or friends to suicide, contact Friends for Survival 1-800-646-7322.
Colleen King is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, mental health advocate and motivational speaker who lost her father and brother to suicide deaths. Colleen lives with bipolar disorder and enjoys a full and fabulous life. Colleen has a private practice in Sacramento, CA specializing in helping women with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder turn struggles into strengths and reclaim their lives. For a newsletter with coping skills and tips go to www.insightcounselingsacramento.com